Kenning through Astronomy Divine: Edward Taylor and Sacramental Mystery

Edward Taylor, more than the home-grown New England Puritans, knew the price to be paid for belief.

Taylor was born in the middle of England (Leicestershire County) in 1642, the year that Charles I declared war on his own Parliament. He was born into a nonconformist family, and grew up in the heyday of Puritanism in England. Taylor’s father was a small but evidently prosperous enough farmer, since Taylor seems to have had the benefit of a gentleman’s (or teacher’s) education. Taylor had some university training, the tradition has it that he attended Cambridge, but there are apparently no records to confirm this. The Protectorate allowed a dissenter like Taylor to teach, but upon the restoration of the monarchy, Taylor would suffer along with the greater Saints. He could no longer practice his profession after the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which required acceptance of liturgy and doctrines incompatible to the dissenters. So he lost his teaching position (possibly at Bagworth in Leicestershire).

What he did for the next six years is not recorded. On April 26, 1668, however, he set sail for Massachusetts Bay. The first indication that he was preparing for the ministry is contained in his diary of that voyage: On Sabbath May 24, he spoke (as an “exercise,” not being licensed) on John 3:3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Taylor’s own rebirth would begin on July 4, 1668, the day he arrived in Boston. Massachusetts Bay was no longer the City upon a Hill, but it did not require Uniformity—at least not uniformity to Church of England doctrine. He was encouraged by President Charles Chauncy to enroll in the college, and as an inducement he was permitted to enter as a second year student and given the job of college butler. (The student acting as butler, according to Harvard, “was responsible for supplying and managing the Buttery, a commissary where students could purchase food and minor necessities, along with other certain other daily tasks.” It was also an administrative office, in which the butler would wait on the President and professors for orders. As a perquisite the butler was assigned a freshman as an assistant. See Samuel F. Batchelder, “The History of ‘Commons’ at Harvard—I,” 23 Harvard Alumni Bulletin 691 at 694 (1920). The position was accordingly prestigious. Among others, Joseph Willard, President of Harvard at the end of the eighteenth century, had been a college butler.) In addition to a foundation in the classical languages and Hebrew (all of which was necessary to explore the only texts of interest in that society), he was able to copy by hand books that intrigued him. He copied hundreds of pages on medicinal herbs and metallurgy (among other things). He was evidently considered destined for the upper echelons of Puritan society, for he roomed with Samuel Sewall for two years at Harvard.

In 1671, after Taylor graduated, Increase Mather suggested Taylor to undertake the task of organizing a church in Westfield, Massachusetts, the fur trading post which had only in 1669 been incorporated as a Town. Taylor hesitated because Chauncy wanted him to stay at Harvard, but in the end went on the urging of Mather. He made the journey, “the desperatest journey that ever Connecticut men undertook,” in November 1671 and would remain in that wilderness outpost for the rest of his life. He would have two wives there, 14 children (five of whom died before adulthood), and spend a mostly uneventful life in the wild forest.

In the Fall of 1675 Westfield had poor communications with more established settlements and was not particularly well garrisoned. Despite that, it suffered only an occasional raid by natives during King Philip’s War and never sustained an attack in force. Danger was never far off, however. In October, after receiving word of the betrayal of the Springfield Indians, troops from Westfield were able to rush to Springfield in time to prevent the spread of a fire designed to burn down the town. Living among people who could not be understood, who consorted with devils and who at any moment might turn on them, did not cause Taylors parish, or Taylor himself, to become the hysterics that the credulous on the coast and their intellectual bettors in Boston soon became, however.

And so Taylor was able to spend the rest of his life contemplating the mysteries of salvation. His poetry was one of his methods for doing so. Salvation, as Taylor saw it, was best seen through metaphors. In fact, the essence of salvation was itself a metaphor—the Lord’s Supper. It is a startling piece of image, however you view it. The most “metaphysical” of the gospel authors put it this way:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.
(John 6:51-56)

Grabo is certainly correct in pointing out that “the sacrament was the occasion for, as well as the subject of, most of his poetry. Also the concern of his ministry, it naturally occupies a significant position in his preaching.” Norman S. Grabo, Edward Taylor (NY: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961), p 31. As a ritual, it was the central experience in Puritan life, at least as Taylor saw it. And Taylor understood that this very metaphor was the reason that the devout were willing to give up everything: “the old and new Nonconformists … deserted episcopal governments and suffered persecution, loss of their public ministry, poverty, imprisonment … to avoid such mixt administrations of the Lord’s Supper; and to enjoy an holy administrating of it to the visibly worthy was that that brought this people from all things near and dear to them in their native country to encounter with the sorrows and difficulties of the wilderness.” (From Taylor’s series of sermons in 1694 concerning the Lord’s Supper, in the Prince Collection of the Boston Public Library, quoted in Grabo at 34.) This sentiment was not idiosyncratic to Taylor. The respected writer Thomas Doolittle, disciple of the eminent Puritan Richard Baxter, published  a much reprinted pamphlet, A treatise concerning the Lords Supper: with three dialogues for the more full information of the weak in the nature and use of the Sacrament (London: Printed by R.I. for Joshua Johnson: 1667), in which he presents a typology for the sacrament, more prosaically than Taylor, however:

“The external elements and signs: bread and wine. In sacraments there is something seen, and something understood; something perceived by sense, and something apprehended by faith: sacraments are glasses for our understanding, and monuments for our memories, that by mean and visible signs, we might perceive and call to mind sublime and invisible things. Here is bread, even bread of life to feed the hungry soul, and wine to satisfy the thirsty, and to cheer the drooping soul.” (Quoted from the edition of Aberdeen: George & Robert King: 1844, pp 9-10.)

What made all this the more vital to Taylor was that even in the wilderness he was confronted with a threat to this very essential way to experience the divine. And that threat was in the form of Harvard alumnus Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was a charismatic personality, as are all those who bring ruin on a faith from within. Taylor knew him well; when Taylor attended the college, Stoddard was the “Library keeper.” Stoddard became the pastor of Northampton when Taylor was a senior, and he began a half century domination of the beliefs and practice of faith in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. It was this region that Taylor was fated to minister. And in the mysterious ways in which divine comedy operates, Stoddard would be the principal opponent to Taylor’s way of viewing the Lord’s Supper, both as a metaphor and as a sacrament.

Stoddard, it seems, was motivated, as are all charismatics, by the desire to increase the fold, even at the expense of doctrine. To stalwarts of the faith, such as Increase Mather, this was unacceptable. The old guard believed that the Lord’s Supper should be open only to those who could demonstrate an experience giving confidence that they were of the Elect. Stoddard found the requirement impossible to achieve because no one could absolutely show he was chosen by God. It was one of the less attracting features of Calvinism that no one could be sure. Stoddard argued that any one who believed he was saved should be permitted to celebrate the sacrament and even if this lax standard permitted those not yet saved, it might produce a receptiveness to the spirit and be the agency of their salvation. This last part produced cries of popery, and the Saints labelled this form of heresy “Stoddardeanism.” The vituperation between Mather and Stoddard would last into the next century.

Taylor’s own view of the sacrament was more subtle than either. But he sided with Mather because he could not bear to see the central metaphor of his mystical experience sullied by those not prepared. To Taylor the sacrament was not “a tragedy or stage play”; it was a mystery that required preparation of the soul in the form of “prayer, meditation, and self-examination.” Throughout Taylor’s career as minister, he preached the need to confront this central mystery in a precise way, prepared and receptive. And for his own sake he crafted “Preparatory Meditations” to focus his mind to the point where he could contemplate the mystery. These meditative poems were the central feature of his poetic project, a project that lasted from 1682 to 1725 and produced 217 poems. The poems (which he maintained in a special book which he enjoined against publication) partook of the metaphysical nature of the mystery of salvation. Because the only poetic techniques for such a project belonged to Donne and Marvel and Herbert, Taylor became what Dryden and Johnson dismissively labelled a metaphysical poet, a form that T.S. Eliot resuscitated nearly a century ago.  None of the three critics had heard of Taylor, because his poetry had laid unpublished in a collection at Yale. The poems nevertheless partook of all the attributes that Dryden, Johnson and Eliot identified: the intellectual perspective, the learned allusions, the extended “witty” metaphors and the abrupt juxtapositions of images. The poetry of Taylor exhibited all the traits condemned by Dryden and Johnson and some of the features lauded by Eliot.

Unlike Donne, however, the poetry of Taylor was focused on a single objective. Yet Taylor’s poetry exhibits the kind of ecstatic intimacy of Donne’s love poetry. What makes Taylor’s poetry so jarring on first blush is its boldness in confronting the divine. There is perhaps no protestant divine who so closely resembles the Catholic medieval mystics like St. John of the Cross. His poems are not designed to be lyrical, but lyricism as an end in itself is a recent, and not particularly widespread goal of poetry.

The selection below is technically typical: iambic pentameter following a rhyme scheme of ababcc. It is the strictness of the form which sets off the liberty of the images. And each meditation brings a new and odd perspective on the mystery. There would be no need to meditate if the mystery were not both unfathomable and attractive. But only those whose understand the seriousness of purpose and the profundity of meaning—and to whom God addressed the mystery—should be permitted to partake, otherwise the sacrament has no value.

While Taylor devoted the whole of his interior life to plumbing the depths of this symbol, Stoddard gathered in the sheep. The Connecticut Valley churches, one by one, accepted Stoddardeanism. A year before Taylor’s death, Nehemiah Bull, Taylor’s successor at Westfield, put this question to the congregation: “Whether such persons as come into full communion may not be left at their liberty as to the giving the church an account of the work of saving conversion, i.e., whether relations shall not be looked upon as a matter of indifference.” Taylor’s sheep, who he spent 50 years cultivating to reject that allure, voted in the affirmative. (Grabo at 38-39.) Stoddard had won; the future was now left in the hands of his grandson, Jonathan Edwards.

Meditation 8

from Preparatory Meditations
first published in Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor (New York: Rockland Editions: 1939)

by Edward Taylor

John 6.51. I am the Living Bread

I kening through Astronomy Divine
The Worlds bright Battlement, wherein I spy
A Golden Path my Pensill cannot line,
From that bright Throne unto my Threshold ly.
And while my puzzled thoughts about it pore
I finde the Bread of Life in’t at my doore.

When that this Bird of Paradise put in
This Wicker Cage (my Corps) to tweedle praise
Had peckt the Fruite forbad: and so did fling
Away its Food; and lost its golden dayes;
It fell into Celestiall Famine sore:
And never could attain a morsell more.

Alas! alas! Poore Bird, what wilt thou doe?
The Creatures field no food for Souls e’re gave.
And if thou knock at Angells cores they show
An Empty Barrell: they no soul bread have.
Alas! Poore Bird, the Worlds White Loafe is done.
And cannot yield thee here the smallest Crumb.

In this sad state, Gods Tender Bowells run
Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife
The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son
Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life.
Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands
Disht on thy Table up by Angells Hands.

Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,
Which from his Table came, and to shine goeth?
Doth he bespeake thee thus, This Soule Bread take.
Come Eate thy fill of this thy Gods White Loafe?
Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take
And Eate thy fill. Its Heavens Sugar Cake.

What Grace is this knead in this Loafe? This thing
Souls are but petty things it to admire.
Yee Angells, help: This fill would to the brim
Heav’n s whelm’d-down Chrystall meele Bowle, yea and higher.
This Bread of Life drops in thy mouth, doth Cry.
Eate, Eate me, Soul, and thou shalt never dy.

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